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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

From flash floods in Arlington to wildfires on the West Coast, climate change is an increasing threat to life and property. This is not a future problem, but a current crisis. We have only a few years to reverse human-made emissions.

Transportation is one of the United States’ largest contributors to greenhouse emissions. Helping people drive less must be part of any climate change solution. Research also shows that multifamily housing requires less energy to heat and cool compared to detached homes. The densest parts of the D.C. region also have the lowest per-person energy consumption. The best thing we can do for our planet, for ourselves and for the next generation is to allow more people to live in these low-carbon neighborhoods.

But density and urban development is sometimes demonized by self-described environmental activists. Some groups focus only on the loss of trees in urban neighborhoods, ignoring the acres of trees that are bulldozed for sprawl development and the broader climate benefits of compact communities.

Douglas Stewart, Transportation and Smart Growth Co-Chair for the Virginia Sierra Club, shares how environmentalists and anyone concerned about sustainability can advocate for housing policies that will help address climate change:

The Sierra Club recognizes that we can’t address climate change without addressing our nation’s housing crisis. The lack of diverse, affordable housing options in developed areas with transit networks where jobs and services are concentrated is a major factor in increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Locating housing farther away from these centers increases traffic and, in Virginia’s transportation sector, accounts for 48% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Average Annual Household Carbon Footprint in 2013 (UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network)

“Infill” is the development of new homes, jobs, shops and services in existing urban and suburban areas and small towns. By enabling people to live closer to jobs and services, infill development reduces driving and greenhouse gas emissions while providing other quality of life and economic benefits. Research by the Coalition for Smarter Growth has demonstrated that more compact development reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 10-40%. Other research has shown that more compact, mixed-use communities also reduce household transportation costs, which are often the second biggest household expense after housing.

Arlington has 11 Metrorail stations, around which more housing could be built, including housing that is affordable to lower-income residents. However, a recent report by the Brookings Institution indicates that a large proportion of new housing is in areas that have fewer jobs and transportation options, such as Loudoun and Prince William Counties, while job-rich areas like Arlington are not building enough housing.

Arlingtonians who are concerned about climate change and equity can help reverse this trend and focus on new growth in walkable, transit-oriented communities with a range of housing options for all incomes. With 3.8 million members, the Sierra Club works to advance climate solutions and ensure everyone has access to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment. The Sierra Club derives its grassroots power from members and volunteers in local groups and state chapters, including the Potomac River Group that covers Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

In the Spring of 2018, I had the great fortune to participate in Arlington Neighborhood College. This county program brings together a group of residents who want to be more involved in the County’s civic life.

Over the course of eight weeks, we were introduced to a diverse range of Arlington County staff and elected officials, as well as the leaders of some of Arlington’s central public-facing institutions.

I recommend the program to anyone interested in being more engaged. The application is due on Friday, Sept. 17. You don’t have to be a civic association president or a frequent visitor to County Board meetings to be accepted. Neighborhood College is for emerging leaders of all kinds. My class of 2018 had long-time and new residents, with a variety of languages, professions and civic interests. The program is for people who live or work in Arlington and “want to improve their communities, are interested in addressing local issues and are willing to devote time and energy to community activities in Arlington County.”

The program, as I experienced it in 2018, had many strengths. The curriculum was divided between leadership skill-building and informal presentations by representatives for Arlington’s key governmental and civic institutions. The program should exemplify what Arlington values in civic leaders and should introduce the central gatekeeping institutions that form the Arlington Way.

For me, the leadership training had limited value. We usually practiced by discussing benign topics, rather than the critical issues that we are concerned about. Our conflict resolution and listening practice did not take advantage of genuine differences of opinion and perspective within the group.

The facilitators did a great job of bringing in representatives from all aspects of Arlington community management and governance. However, in my civic engagement over the three years since I ‘graduated’ from Neighborhood College, it seems that many of our most important decisions are made in a web of public and semi-public meetings that can be opaque to newcomers.

For example, we didn’t hear from representatives of County commissions, such as Planning or Transportation. These groups play a significant role in making recommendations to the County Board and they are often a first or second step for community involvement.

A truly engaged Arlington citizen needs to know the ins and outs of many bureaucratic processes. For example:

  • How do you read the County Board’s agenda and sign up to speak?
  • How does the site plan process work?
  • How does the budget process work?
  • How does someone become a client of PathForward (formerly ASPAN) or AFAC?
  • What happens if someone is arrested?
  • How do you get a stop sign added to your neighborhood?
  • How do school boundaries get drawn?

To be effective neighborhood advocates and engaged citizens of Arlington, we need to learn how these processes work. To train a cohort of Arlington leaders, Neighborhood College should encourage participants to dig into these issues and practice leadership skills through real-world cases where citizens engage with County staff and officials.

Neighborhood College is a great opportunity for Arlington County to think about the meaning of civic engagement and what residents need to learn to be full participants in the Arlington Way.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her family. By day, she is the Membership Director for Food and Water Watch, and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The following was written by guest columnist Alex Pilkington.

According to the most recent census bureau data, Arlington County is home to nearly 230,000 residents. Over 10 percent of these residents are disenfranchised from participating in deciding how our community should be governed. Although they call Arlington home, they have not yet acquired citizenship.

As an inclusive county that values civic participation, Arlington should seek to grant local voting rights to all people that call Arlington home, including those that might not be fully recognized citizens.

Non-citizen Arlingtonians have children in Arlington Public Schools, engage in commerce within our local economy, drive on Arlington roads, use public transportation, play within Arlington’s parks, and study and read within Arlington’s libraries. Regardless of where they emigrated from or how long they have lived here, they are Arlingtonians at their core and should be given the ability to vote for their representatives at the local level.

Although state and federal elections garner most of our attention, local races have a significant impact on daily life for all Arlington residents. This includes the County Board, Commissioner of Revenue, Treasurer, Sheriff, Commonwealth Attorney and Arlington County School Board. Our democracy would improve if more residents of Arlington engaged in these elections. Through extending such voting access, our elected representatives from these offices will need to seriously consider the additional input of a group of people that has traditionally been kept in the dark.

This isn’t some brand new proposal either. This past year, two cities in Vermont (Montpelier and Winooski) joined San Francisco and nine jurisdictions in Maryland in allowing non-citizen voting access in local elections. With Massachusetts, Illinois, New York City, and D.C. considering legislation that would extend voting access within their jurisdictions, Arlington should consider adding its name to this growing list.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an easy feat to accomplish. Based on the debate that previous jurisdictions have seen, there’s reason to believe that there would be significant opposition to such a proposal. In fact, some states have gone so far as to preemptively nullify any local jurisdictions from implementing such a policy.

However, just because something might be difficult shouldn’t preclude it from being considered and brought up for debate. Arlington should be doing everything it can to support and stand behind the immigrants who call our county their home.

I assume that many opponents of this proposal may argue that if people wish to participate in our country’s democratic process, they must go through the complex process of becoming a citizen. A policy analysis from the Cato Institute shows that the typical time it takes to apply for a green card, which is the first step in the naturalization process, is six years (up from about two and a half years in 1991) and that length of time is expected to only increase unless steps are taken to streamline our immigration processes.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. 

I am becoming a kindergarten parent this year and so I’m officially joining the Arlington Public Schools community. During the past 18 months, I’ve watched with sympathy as kids were kept out of school.

Arlington’s public schools were closed, or in a hybrid model, because elected leaders didn’t prioritize the mitigation strategies in our community that would have allowed safe in-classroom instruction. I was lucky to have my kids in full-time daycare for most of the pandemic. We were never exposed to Covid-19 from the center, despite limited mitigation practices.

I watched the Aug. 11 Return to School Town Hall with apprehension. For a school system that seemed incapable of prioritizing in-person learning or delivering on the obvious mitigation strategies to allow that to happen for over a year, I had lost a lot of hope. But my son is turning six soon and I have a philosophical and practical commitment to public education. I was prepared to trust the system and hope for the best. This town hall laid out a comprehensive plan to provide multiple layers of protection for students and staff at APS.

From the outset, Superintendent Duran unequivocally stated that APS will remain with five days of in-person instruction “unless the governor orders the schools to close.” To limit the disruption of quarantine, if a classmate tests positive close contacts will only be defined as anyone within 3 feet, or within 6 feet if both students aren’t wearing masks.

And APS is backing up this commitment with concrete mitigation strategies that address the Covid risk on multiple fronts:

  • Weekly testing of asymptomatic students through an opt-in program. This will take place at each school through a rapid antigen test, to detect asymptomatic cases before they spread
  • Mandatory vaccination or weekly testing of all APS employees (announced in conjunction with Arlington County’s policy after the Town Hall)
  • APS announced a universal mask mandate even before Governor Northam issues this for the entire state. Masks are readily available at each school for anyone to use
  • Certified air cleaning devices have been installed in every classroom, with the goal of delivering four to six air changes per hour. Opening windows is encouraged if the weather allows

Arlington staff should build on these plans to do even more to protect kids and maintain in-person learning:

  • Vaccines should be required for all eligible students
  • Outdoor lunch should be the norm, not just an option when it is most convenient. If staffing is a problem, call on parents to help
  • APS should distribute high quality masks for all children, staff and visitors
  • The facilities’ teams should continue to improve the ventilation and filtration of classrooms, especially for unvaccinated elementary students
  • APS should expand the definition of close contacts while the virus is spreading faster in the community and notify the entire class of a positive Covid test so families can opt to test and/or voluntarily quarantine

These steps would make in-person school safer and more sustainable as we wait for the delta variant to peak (which could occur as early as mid-September, according to some experts).

Every family will evaluate the risk and reward of in-person instruction in their own way. I was committed to sending my child to kindergarten even without these mitigation strategies. But knowing they are in place makes me confident that he is protected in the coming year.

If you haven’t yet registered your child for public school, there is still time. APS also has open slots in the Virginia Preschool Initiative, a state-funded program to offer free early learning for children in low-income families.

For everyone who doesn’t have children, you can help make the school year successful by getting vaccinated and taking precautions to mitigate community spread. As we’ve said since the beginning of the pandemic, we are all in this together.

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her family. By day, she is the Membership Director for Food and Water Watch, and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. 

The Langston Boulevard Corridor (formerly Lee Highway) runs along the southern portion of Arlington’s most expensive and exclusive neighborhoods.

The lots are large, the homes cost a fortune and rental options are few. Arlington County is considering zoning changes along Langston Boulevard that would allow new types of housing, including duplexes, triplexes and small apartments that would be attainable as rental or ownership for moderate-income Arlingtonians.

If you want Arlington staff to take an important step forward by allowing transitional zoning, including missing middle housing, at the edges of the Langston Boulevard Corridor, let them know by August 3.

The Plan Lee Highway process is a revisioning of several neighborhoods surrounding the existing commercial nodes to create more walkable communities, increase the development opportunity, and form a new sense of place. The Plan Lee Highway Concept Plan will come out in the fall.

Langston Boulevard is an ideal place to showcase the benefits of Missing Middle housing. As Arlington’s northern-most arterial road, with regular bus service and a Metro station on each end, it can easily accommodate more residents while allowing people to drive less. To become a modern Main Street, new and existing businesses need more customers to live and shop near their homes. Duplex, triplexes and small multi-family dwellings will provide less expensive homeownership opportunities and more rental units in an area that is financially out of reach to most Arlingtonians.

Missing middle benefits all types of Arlington residents. Young families have more options for their starter home. Senior citizens can find something nearby when they want to downsize. Homeowners have more options if they want to redevelop their property. Gentle density makes our neighborhoods more vibrant, which supports more local businesses and nearby amenities and services. North Arlington has the least affordable housing in Arlington because it has the largest homes, the largest lots, and the fewest rentals. Let’s allow landowners to build the types of housing that fit existing market needs.

Langston Boulevard already has a smattering of small multi-family housing, some of which is now considered “nonconforming” because zoning laws became more restrictive after they were built. Changing the zoning will enhance the existing neighborhood character. Increased density around the East Falls Church Metro Station is especially important because the station has low ridership and was considered for closure by WMATA in a recent budget proposal. Putting more residents within walking distance of the Metro makes good use of this public asset.

Unfortunately, staff have received significant negative feedback from neighbors who are resistant to change. Positive comments about new housing options show our leaders that Arlington is full of people who are looking toward a future of Arlington that is inclusive and sustainable. That means allowing more people to live in opportunity-rich neighborhoods like those along Langston Boulevard.

The Arlington Way is designed to heighten the feedback of older, wealthier, and more established Arlington residents, not to achieve a representative sample of our community (which is 60% renters), or to highlight the perspective of those most in need. “Eternal vigilance is the price of low density,” County Board Member Leo Urbanske said in 1962 when he voted to dissuade “lower income people” from coming to the county by banning three-story walk-ups. Sixty years later, this attitude still holds sway in the county.

Those of us who embrace density, who want housing options for renters and non-millionaires, and who want a place for newcomers, people aging in place and everyone in between, need to show this same vigilance by sharing feedback with the County Board and staff at every opportunity. Please send your comments in favor of missing middle zoning along Langston Boulevard to [email protected] by August 3!

Jane Fiegen Green, an Arlington resident since 2015, proudly rents an apartment in Pentagon City with her family. By day, she is the Membership Director for Food and Water Watch, and by night she tries to navigate the Arlington Way. Opinions here are her own.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. 

The following was written by guest columnist Thomas Bingham.

Virginia recently just decriminalized personal use of marijuana and passed reforms on use of police force. These are defining a step in the right direction and in the coming year, Virginia voters can hold candidates accountable and demand even more action on criminal justice reform.

Continued progress includes reducing sentences for crimes, improving policing, and expanding the legalization of recreational drugs. Below are policies that Arlington’s elected leaders should pursue to make the next steps toward criminal justice reform.

1. Ending mandatory minimums during the 2022 legislative cycle

Mandatory minimums of these laws have been passed during the tough on crime era. The intent of these laws was to reduce crime and take dangerous people off the streets. The result has led to minorities and low-income individuals being disproportionately targeted by the harsh drug laws. The harsh drug laws with mandatory minimums are why the U.S. has one of the biggest prison systems in the world.

The Virginia State Senate took the advice of the Virginia Crime Commission and passed a bill eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for most crimes. The bill failed in the House of Delegates. Arlington’s delegation could champion a more limited version of the bill that could pass in the next legislative session. At the very least, Virginia should end mandatory minimums for drug related charges and focus on better solutions to address drug addiction.

2. Democrats should abandon the “defund the police” movement and focus on reforms

News of car jackings and armed robberies have proliferated in recent months. Cutting funding for public safety does not help assure anxious residents and could be politically damaging to moderate Democrats seeking reelection this year.

This doesn’t mean that our elected representatives should abandon police reform. Law enforcement should narrow their focus on preventing violent crimes and use more discretion on victimless crimes, particularly crimes that have been used to target people of color for arbitrary arrest. The state legislature should focus on improving training, hiring more law enforcement personnel, giving law enforcement more tools to de-escalate hostile situations and changing tactics to protect citizens.

Along with these reforms, we should pressure our Senate and House representatives to end qualified immunity. Widely denounced in the wake of Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in 2020, qualified immunity shields public officials from being personally liable from violating individual rights. This effort failed the Virginia House last year but there is a chance it could be revisited in the next legislative cycle.

Civil Asset Forfeiture, a practice that allows police departments to take money or property based on a suspicion of crime, should be banned much like Maine did recently. The easy fix would be to require a criminal conviction before taking someone’s property.

3. Adapt similar policies to Oregon to decriminalize most personal use of drugs

The War on Drugs, which has increased the surveillance and arrest of people of color for over 50 years, is at the root of our unjust and inequitable criminal justice system. The sanest route, even if it is the most controversial, would be to decriminalize the personal possession of most drugs. This radical experiment has proven to be effective in Portugal by reducing drug abuse and limiting the spread of HIV. Oregon is the first state in the US to pursue this approach.

Arlington doesn’t currently have the progressive leadership that would champion such a dramatic change from the status quo. The best route would be to build grassroots support and bring a referendum to the voters. We should start laying the groundwork now.

Conclusion

Virginia has made some important first steps in undoing its harsh drug laws and reforming its broken criminal justice system. There is a lot more work to do with police reform, reducing crime and ending the war on drugs.

Thomas Bingham is a California native and lives in Arlington. He has worked in the public policy field for over ten years defending liberty and advocating for limited government. In his personal time, he enjoys the outdoors and riding motorcycles.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. 

Every year, Arlington loses market-rate affordable housing (MARKs) as redevelopment and reinvestment turns older, lower-cost apartments into newer, higher-cost apartments.

We also lose committed affordable housing (CAFs) when the income and rental restrictions on properties built with public funds expire, typically after 30-60 years.

In 2027, Arlington could lose 500 MARKs and CAFs near the vibrant and desirable Ballston area when the term of committed affordability at the Ballston Park Apartments expires.

This would be a huge blow to the County’s Affordable Housing goals. Staff, advocates, and tenants should start now to create a plan to preserve this affordable housing stock as the landlord pursues it’s likely goal of redevelopment.

Ballston Park is a perfect case study for Arlington’s forthcoming Multifamily Reinvestment Study. Part of the Housing Arlington initiative, the Multifamily Reinvestment Study “seeks ways to stem the loss of market-rate affordable housing that occurs in multifamily apartment communities when property owners rehabilitate, redevelop, or add new units.”

The fate of Arlington’s aging garden-style apartments is one of the biggest challenges to current housing policy. They provide lower-cost housing to thousands of residents, largely due to their age and condition. But these properties are on scarce land that allows multi-family buildings as by-right development. They are prime targets for demolition and development as higher-cost townhomes, with no requirement to preserve or support affordable housing.

Ballston Park will present a greater challenge for preservation than previous efforts.

First, the property has limited parking lots, which means not as much space to build new housing at a higher price point to offset the cost of preserving affordable units. Second, Arlington doesn’t have the option of using historic designation to force the property owner (in this case Paradigm) to negotiate and maintain affordable units.

To preserve affordable homes for the hundreds of families at Ballston Park, and other tenants at low-cost, aging apartments throughout the County, Arlington should pursue three objectives:

1. Find policies that preserve 100% of the existing MARKs and expiring CAFs

The County should not be satisfied with partial preservation of our endangered market rate affordable housing (MARKs). Preserving the existing stock of lower-cost housing is more effective than building new Committed Affordable Housing (CAFs) using developer contributions or Arlington funds.

One nearby example is the Residential Affordability Zone as part of the South Patrick Affordability Strategy in Alexandria that is working toward 1-to-1 replacement of expiring CAF units at aging properties along Route 1.

2. Make it easier to build at a higher density in Arlington’s ‘unplanned’ areas

Ballston Park, like many garden-style apartments, is in an “unplanned” area of the County. This means that while the zoning allows for multifamily dwellings, there are few options for building above the baseline density. Developers have little reason to pursue anything but the by-right zoning on the site, which means they build the most expensive housing that the plot allows, and the community gets no additional housing and no public benefits.

The solution is not to halt change and leave these buildings as they are. Aging garden apartments need reinvestment to remain habitable, and many are located in areas of the County that warrant greater density to allow even more people to live near robust amenities. Making it easier for property owners to add more units means more opportunity to preserve existing lower-cost housing alongside higher-cost housing. Read More

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. 

If the last year has taught us anything, it is that half measure never provide real solutions to our most pressing problems.

In the realm of housing, our leaders should be taking bold action to address affordability and ensure a sustainable future. This means being courageous in championing an end to exclusionary zoning and embracing policies that will allow multifamily housing throughout the County.

Housing affordability and the terrible legacy of exclusionary zoning are making national headlines. In recent weeks, this has been spurred by a proposal within President Biden’s American Jobs Plan to “eliminate state and local exclusionary zoning laws.” National opinion writers have clarified that restrictive zoning policies are antithetical to both progressive values of inclusivity and conservative values of the free market.

As the national conversation moves toward acceptance of inclusive and open zoning, advocates at the local and state level have succeeded in pushing elected officials to act. Communities across the country are making news by taking bold steps to add housing, in the name of racial justice, as well as economic necessity.

The City Council of Berkeley, California, voted to eliminate single-family zoning, a century after it was the first city to establish the practice. This is a symbolic but significant step, recognizing the racist legacy of exclusionary zoning. Other cities in California have made similar moves, including Sacramento and San Jose. This follows Minneapolis’s transformative zoning change in 2018, and statewide zoning liberalization in Oregon in 2019.

Why isn’t Arlington making news on this front?

We were the beneficiaries of the biggest economic development decision of the past decade when National Landing was selected as the location for Amazon’s second headquarters. This decision made news across the country. The anticipated, and ongoing, challenges to housing affordability, displacement, and tenant advocacy also made news.

But Arlington County is not making news with its policy response. Instead, we are taking miniscule steps, deferring to entrenched interests at every point. Everything is undertaken from the perspective of an incumbent landowner who demands a low-density, car-centered neighborhood blocks away from corridors rich with opportunity.

Arlingtonians pushing for affordable and attainable housing, as well as safe streets and reduced car traffic, face a gauntlet of public meetings. It takes hours of our lives to get a half mile of protected bike lane or an extra unit of housing on a single-family lot.

The Vernon Street Duplex is a proposal for a two-unit dwelling on a corner lot along Washington Blvd. Because of zoning rules, the builder must go through the same site plan review process that the County has for large-scale apartment or office buildings. “Missing middle” housing will never be attainable for middle-income families if it is forced to incur onerous planning processes.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. 

The following was written by guest columnist Kaydee Myers.

Over the next two years, the Arlington County Board and the Arlington School Board have the opportunity to create a more integrated community through four concurrent planning efforts.

Arlington County started its Missing Middle Housing Study and Affordable Housing Master Plan Review, while also drafting a plan for (the soon to-be-renamed) Lee Highway. Meanwhile, the School Board will adopt comprehensive elementary school boundaries in Fall 2022.

If the Boards coordinate these efforts, they could institute multi-family zoning in a portion of the area assigned to each neighborhood elementary school, leading to more mixed-income housing in neighborhoods currently lacking these options.

As in most public school districts in the nation, Arlington operates neighborhood schools, where most kids go to school based on where they live. Similarly, like most urban areas, Arlington County housing patterns reflect ingrained racial, ethnic, and economic segregation after years of discriminatory government policies and coordinated racist real estate practices. Our schools reflect this housing framework.

Past efforts, such as busing for integration, have fallen out of favor with parents, elected officials, and the courts. Other efforts, like option schools, are models for integration, but are not widespread enough to change the system. Plus, APS reports that Arlington parents voice a strong preference for walkable neighborhood elementary schools, and there are valid economic, environmental, and health benefits for promoting this walkability.

With this backdrop, APS is unlikely to challenge the status quo. However, APS can increase integration with intensive joint planning with the County Board to address school segregation where it starts — its neighborhoods. Many community members, including School Board member Reid Goldstein have called for this joint planning. But, despite being one of the 10 people in the County able to implement this collaboration, Mr. Goldstein didn’t elaborate on how to get started.

The most promising opportunity to improve integration within APS is the County’s Plan Lee Highway initiative. By reimagining Lee Highway as a walkable urban boulevard, a rezoning effort could add mixed-income housing in the northernmost quarter of Arlington — neighborhoods with the highest median incomes, which flow to elementary schools with the lowest poverty rates in the County.

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s. 

I am proud to be a board member of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing in Arlington. Below is my own modified and condensed version of the letter AHS sent to the Arlington County Board regarding the FY22 Budget.

During this time, we have become more aware than ever how vitally important a safe and affordable place to call home can be. Today, a home is not only where we rest our heads at night but it is also where children receive much of their education and many adults either work or take refuge from the danger created by this rampant virus.

Arlington expects to receive $46M in federal assistance through the American Rescue Plan. Using these funds, the County Board should make the following changes to the FY22 budget:

Increase Investment in AHIF and Realign Income Levels Served

The Manager’s proposal slashes the total Affordable Housing Investment Fund (AHIF) allocation from last year’s level of $16 million to less than $9 million by cutting out all one-time funds for the program. Funds from the American Rescue Plan should be used as one-time funding to bring AHIF to at least $18.7 million in FY22.

In early 2020 AHS was advocating for a $25 million County allocation to AHIF, a level that is still warranted. Funding received from developer contributions, including the Amazon Metropolitan Park contribution, should not be used as a replacement for ongoing General Fund support.

Furthermore, recent data show that Arlington has a significant shortage of housing options for our lowest-income neighbors. The County should prioritize AHIF funding to include a share of units designated for residents making 30% of AMI, and also to buy down higher priced units within Committed Affordable properties so they are available to residents at the greatest need.

Update the Housing Grants Program for a Post-COVID Environment

The Manager’s proposed budget wisely increases the Housing Grants and Permanent Supportive Housing programs by 26% and 28% respectively, including the continued increase in maximum allowable rents. At a time when many Arlingtonians have dropped into lower income brackets during the pandemic, this increase in tenant-based housing assistance will help cushion that fall for some.

This would be an ideal time for the County to consider what changes it should make to the long-term design and eligibility of the Housing Grants program for post-COVID needs. This should include expanding eligibility within the program to cover additional groups who are currently unable to receive assistance (such as children aging out of foster care).

The County should lower the percent of income paid toward rent from the current 40% of income to a more reasonable 30% of income. Aligning with federal standard of housing affordability would allow very low-income recipients to a larger financial cushion to cover other important and often unpredictable expenses. Read More

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Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The year-long (and counting) pandemic has caused a large increase in the apartment vacancy rate in Arlington.

While stories of an urban exodus are overblown, national research indicates that the pandemic has decreased the inflow of new residents. Some of Arlington’s landlords have responded to high vacancy rates by lowering rents. This is welcome news for renters who struggle to afford payment or want to upgrade their home.

But landlords also have another tactic to fill vacant apartments, by taking long-existing units off the market for long-term tenants and switching them to hotel units or short-term rentals. The County Board should scrutinize these requests and consider the benefits of abundant housing, even if it means large landlords must charge competitive prices. Renters should be the ones benefiting from the lower demand.

Arlington’s vacancy rate is relatively high at 9.4% across the county. This is slightly above what is considered healthy for a rental market (7-8%), but it is still below the rate that would be worrisome. County-wide, landlords have responded by lowering nearly 15%. However, given that Arlington had a 4% vacancy rate before the pandemic, it is not surprising that landlords would look for other options to reduce the number of vacant units they carry.

Dittmar, a locally-based company that owns and manages dozens of older apartment buildings throughout Northern Virginia, has asked the County Board for permission to convert 5% of its vacant inventory at three properties in the R-B corridor as short-term rental units for up to 5 years. (This is a different situation from a new development requesting temporary hotel zoning during its lease-up phase.)

Dittmar’s letter requesting this minor site plan revision, explains:

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Applicant has experienced unprecedented levels of vacancy in residential units. It believes that, as business travel begins to return to the region in the future, there will be a demand for leases of furnished units for less than 30 days. The Applicant seeks to serve this group of people by converting a portion of the residential units on the Property to Flexible Units to allow for a more socially-distanced temporary stay in Arlington.

In their Statement of Justification, Dittmar doesn’t discuss what steps it has taken to fill their vacant units with long-term residents, such as how deeply they have cut rents or other financial incentives they have offered.

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